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Science | DOI:10.1145/2983268

Don Monroe

Optical Fibers
Getting Full
Exploring ways to push more data through
a fiber one-tenth the thickness of the average human hair.

were
first deployed for communications in the 1970s, the
number of bits per second
a single fiber can carry has
grown by the astonishing factor of 10
million, permitting an enormous increase in total data traffic, including
cellular phone calls that spend most of
their lives as bits traveling in fiber.
The exponential growth resembles
Moores Law for integrated circuits.
Technology journalist Jeff Hecht has
proposed calling the fiber version
Kecks Law after Corning researcher
Donald Keck, whose improvements in
glass transparency in the early 1970s
helped launch the revolution. The simplicity of these laws, however, obscures the repeated waves of innovation
that sustain them, and both laws seem
to be approaching fundamental limits.
Fiber researchers have some cards to
play, though. Moreover, if necessary the
industry can install more fibers, similar
to the way multiple processors took the
pressure off saturating clock rates.
However, the new solutions may not
yield the same energy and cost savings
that have helped finance the telecommunication explosion.
Optical fiber became practical when

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researchers learned how to purify materials and fabricate fibers with extraordinary transparency, by embedding
a higher refractive-index core to trap
the light deep within a much larger
cladding. Subsequent improvements
reduced losses to their current levels,
about 0.2 dB/km for light wavelengths
(infrared colors) near 1.55 m. A laser beam that is turned on and off to
encode bits can transmit voice or data

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tens of kilometers before it must be detected and retransmitted. In ensuing


years the bit rate increased steadily,
driven both by faster transmitters and
receivers and by fiber designs that minimized the spread of the pulses.
As the pace of improvements began
to slow, researchers realized they could
send more information through fiber
by combining light of slightly different wavelengths, each carrying its own

IMAGE BY JAM ANI CA ILLET/EPF L

I N CE O P T I C AL FI BE RS

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stream of data. The beams are multiplexed into a single fiber and demultiplexed at the other end using high-tech
devices akin to prisms that separate
white light into colors.
Adoption of this wavelength-division multiplexing, or WDM, was
greatly aided by erbium-doped fiber
amplifiers. These devices splice in a
moderate length of specialty fiber containing a trace of the rare-earth element, which is pumped with a nearby
laser to amplify any passing light within a range of wavelengths. Crucially,
this amplification occurs with no need
to convert the light to an electrical signal and back again, or even to separate
the different colors. Signals can thus
travel thousands of kilometers in the
form of light.
The widespread adoption of WDM
in the 1990s transformed the conception of optical communication from a
single modulated beam to a complete
spectrum like that familiar for radio
waves. The seemingly narrow C-band
of erbium used in most amplifiers corresponds to a bandwidth of roughly 10
THz, theoretically enough to carry as
much as 20 trillion bits (Tb) per second
of on/off data. Systems offering scores
of wavelength channels were built to
take advantage of this previously unheard-of capacity.
Unfortunately, the rapid fiber installation boom was motivated by extraordinary demand projections that proved
unrealistic, resulting in a period of excess fiber capacity. Nonetheless, overall traffic has continued to double every
two years or less, so after a few years increased capacity was once again needed in high-traffic parts of the network.
To provide this capacity, companies
adopted a long-standing research vision
of coherent communication into the
marketplace in about 2010. Rather than
representing bits as the presence or
absence of light, this technique, widely
used in the radio spectrum, encodes
data in the phase and the amplitude of
the light wave. Although the number
of symbols per second is still limited
by the available bandwidth, coherent
communication allows each symbol to
represent multiple bits of information,
so the total bit rate increases. Typical
systems now transmit 100 Gb/s on each
wavelength, or 8 Tb/s over 80 WDM
channels, in a single fiber.

A criticaland still
openquestion
is whether systems
can become cheaper
with SDM than
with multiple
separate fibers.

Nonlinear Shannon Limit


In theory (the information theory attributed to Claude Shannon at Bell Laboratories in 1948), the number of bits that
can be packed into a symbol is limited
by the base-2 logarithm of the signalto-noise ratio. Increasing the power can
increase the bit rate, but only gradually.
For optical fibers, however, increased optical power changes the dielectric constant, and thus the propagation, of the optical signal. There are
extra distortions, and some of them
you cannot compensate, said RenJean Essiambre of Bell Laboratories in
Crawford Hill, NJ, which was recently
acquired by Nokia (and named Nokia
Bell Labs). These distortions act like
noise, and ultimately nullify any advantage of increased power.
Interestingly, because the nonlinear
effects caused by the data on one wavelength channel affect all other channels in the fiber, the net result is a limit
on the total number of bits per second
in all channels combined. Essiambre
and his colleagues have calculated this
limit for specific network configurations, and have concluded modern coherent systems are quite close to it.
The limitations on bit rate become
especially stringent for very long distances. In addition, realistic reductions
in fiber nonlinearity cause only a modest improvement in capacity, Essiambre said. To increase that number is
very difficult because its a logarithm.
To reduce the nonlinearity of conventional fibers, researchers have tried
making the core out of pure silica or
spreading the light over a larger crosssectional area, said David Richardson,
deputy director of the Optoelectronics

Research Centre at University of Southampton in the U.K. Significant progress has been made, Richardson said,
but youre not going to get a factor of
10 reduction in nonlinearity.
In contrast, a 1,000-fold reduction in
the nonlinearity has been demonstrated
using a fiber that confines the light to an
empty core within a periodic photonic
bandgap material for the cladding. Unfortunately, because of the logarithm
and other effects, the benefits dont
scale linearly, Richardson said, so you
maybe get a factor of three improvement in performance. Moreover, the fibers have so far shown an order of magnitude greater loss than conventional
fibers, so photonic bandgap fibers are in
the dim and distant future.
Space-Division Multiplexing
An approach that is perhaps a little
less radical, space-division multiplexing (SDM), could involve either multiple
cores within a single cladding or a fiber
that supports several spatial modes
rather than just one. Multicore fibers,
for example, are not particularly controversial, Richardson said, adding
that most people accept that the fibers
can be operated independently. Even
if spatial modes get mixed during their
travel, the digital signal processing used
in coherent systems can disentangle
them as it does for polarization modes
and in current application to multipleantenna radio systems.
A criticaland still openquestion
is whether systems can become cheaper
with SDM than with multiple separate
fibers. Researchers have demonstrated
simultaneous amplification of different
spatial modes by incorporating optical
gain into the cladding they all share.
This is where the technology may provide an advantage, Richardson said, as
erbium amplifiers did for WDM.
One company already championing integrated components is Infinera
Corp., but Geoff Bennett, the companys
director of Solutions and Technology, is
skeptical about SDM. Im not going to
say never, but for the foreseeable time
horizon its just not going to happen.
A major problem is that SDM requires different fibers. Deploying new
fiber is literally the last resort that any
operator would consider, Bennett said,
noting recent submarine cable installations have used large-area fibers be-

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cause their lower nonlinearity is particularly advantageous on those long links.
SDM systems would also require different connectors, splicing, and other
infrastructure. None of that ecosystem thats been developed over the last
20 years will work for SDM, Bennett
said. Although some links are heavily oversubscribed, in general theres
plenty of unlit fiber out there from
the boom of the early 2000s. Lighting
up a spare fiber from a cable containing scores of them will require a chain
of amplifiers every 80 km or so, he admits, but theyre not that expensive
and they never break.
Lower-Hanging Fruit
Coherent technology has expanded the
raw capacity of existing fiber, Bennett
said, but there are still opportunities
to improve the operational and cost
dimensions of network performance.
Digital processing was first introduced
at receivers, allowing for greater capacity as well as compensation for signal
distortions. In what Bennett calls the
second coherent era, processing is being incorporated at transmitters as well.
That gives you a number of options.
One such option is the construction
of superchannels, multiple wavelengths that can be squeezed closer
in frequency without interference by
shaping the pulses. Tapping the frequency space between neighboring
channels allows you to unlock a lot
more capacity in the fiber, Bennett
said; in a typical case, growing from
about 8 Tb/s to about 12 Tb/s.

Sean Long, director for Product Management at Huawei, also regards SDM as
a question mark for the future, although
his company has a small group looking at it. Theoretically, thats the direction we need to go, but theres a lot of
things that we need to develop, he said.
Its still too complicated.
Also, We still have things we can
do before that, Long said, potentially
including erbium amplifiers in the unused spectral region known as L band.
Currently we are more focusing on
the spectral efficiency by exploiting
transmission-side digital signal processing. The flexibility is there already. Now we need to figure out how
we can make the best combination for
certain applications.
Energy Crisis
However industry addresses bit-rate
limits, other challenges are coming,
which were the subject of a May 2015
meeting on Communications networks beyond the capacity crunch.
Co-organizer Andrew Ellis of Aston
University in Birmingham, U.K., had
previously analyzed the implications
of the nonlinear Shannon limit. Unfortunately, there are equal problems
across the rest of the network, such as
software protocols, he said.
If fiber nonlinearities require the
use of duplicate fibers and other components, its difficult to see how youre
going to sustain the historical reduction in energy cost per bit that has driven
network expansion, Ellis said. Every
time weve introduced a new generation,

theres been a factor-of-four improvement in performance and the energy


cost has only gone up by a factor of two.
Even if energy reduction continues,
the total energy use by communications networks is projected to rival all
other energy use within two or three decades, Ellis said. We are going to use a
greater and greater amount of energy if
the demand keeps growing.
Further Reading
Hecht, J.
Great Leaps of Light, IEEE Spectrum,
February 2016, p. 28.
Ellis, A.D., Suibhne, N. M., D. Saad, D., and
Payne, D.N.
Communication networks beyond
the capacity crunch, Philosophical
Transactions of The Royal Society A
2016 374 20150191; DOI: 10.1098/
rsta.2015.0191. Published 25 January 2016,
http://rsta.royalsocietypublishing.org/
content/374/2062/20150191
Richardson, D.J.
New optical fibres for high-capacity
optical communications, Philosophical
Transactions of The Royal Society A,
2016 374 20140441; DOI: 10.1098/
rsta.2014.0441. Published 25 January
2016, http://rsta.royalsocietypublishing.org/
content/374/2062/20140441
Andrew Ellis
Boosting Bandwidth, Physics World,
April 2016, p. 17, http://www.unloc.net/
images/news/AndrewEllis_PhysicsWorld_
finalarticle.pdf
Don Monroe is a science and technology writer based in
Boston, MA.

2016 ACM 0001-0782/16/10 $15.00

Milestones

Matsudaira Receives
NCWIT Symons Innovator Award
The National Center for Women
& Information Technology
(NCWIT) recently named Kate
Matsudaira 2016 recipient of its
Symons Innovator Award, which
promotes womens participation
in information technology
(IT) and entrepreneurship by
honoring an outstanding woman
who has successfully built and
founded an IT business.
A software engineer who has
led work on distributed systems,
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COM MUNICATIO NS O F TH E ACM

cloud computing, and mobile


development, Matsudaira worked
in a number of companies and
startups before starting her own
firm, Popforms, to create content
and tools to help employees and
managers be more productive.
Safari Books Online, owned
by OReilly Media, purchased
Popforms in 2015.
Matsudaira currently is a
principal of Urban Influence,
a Seattle-based brand and
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interactive development firm.


She is a published author,
keynote speaker, a member
of the editorial board of
ACM Queue, and maintains a
personal blog at katemats.com.
NCWIT said Matsudaira has
exhibited leadership through
managing entire product teams
and research scientists, and
by building her own profitable
business.
The award is named for

Jeanette Symons, founder


of Industrious Kid, Zhone
Technologies, and Ascend
Communications, and an
NCWIT Entrepreneurial Hero
whose pioneering work made
her an inspiration to many.
NCWIT hopes the Symons
Award inspires other women
to pursue IT entrepreneurship,
and increases awareness of
the importance of womens
participation in IT.